Why Leo Varadkar could turn out to be unionists' unexpected new friend
As speculation continues over the future direction of Brexit talks, the Taoiseach has revealed a keen awareness of the sensitivities of its impact here, writes Henry McDonald.
There is a Brexit paradox emerging on the island of Ireland, which is that those who cry the most about how leaving the EU would endanger the Good Friday Agreement are themselves, by their hyperbole and hysteria, imperilling the 1998 peace accord.
The Alliance Party has been taking a pounding of late, both from grassroots loyalists and the mainstream unionist parties. However, Alliance's critics of late should pay attention to a relatively unreported analysis of the local Brexit debate by the party's deputy leader Stephen Farry.
Just ahead of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's two-day visit to Belfast last week, Farry criticised the joint Dail-Senate committee set up to respond to the Brexit challenges for advancing Irish unity as one alternative that could at least keep Northern Ireland inside the EU.
He reminded those who would listen that any change in Northern Ireland's status - even on the grounds of granting "special status" to the pro-Remain region in its relationship with Europe - had to be built on the principle of consent.
This, after all, Farry noted, was the cornerstone of the Belfast Agreement, whereas pushing the envelope on the united Ireland front in the Irish parliament would only alienate an important section of the pro-Remain electorate in the north.
The Alliance acting leader (now that Naomi Long is on leave for medical reasons) argued that floating notions of Irish unity as one outcome "must be decoupled from the immediate challenges of Brexit. It is, therefore, unhelpful for the (Dail-Senate) committee to consider both of these matters within one report".
In essence, what Farry is arguing is that there is a danger that nationalist Ireland could end up "sectarianising" the Brexit issue and, in turn, undermine the very balanced, nuanced settlement that the architects of the Good Friday deal envisaged almost two decades ago.
Inside the Canada Room at Queen's University last Friday, it appeared that Taoiseach Varadkar recognised that very same danger. He dismissed the notion proposed by one of his Fine Gael party colleagues that the border be redrawn in the Irish Sea. Varadkar sought to calm unionist fears that Brexit (for all its folly and false promises from the Tory Right) would not be used as a battering-ram against them.
He even had some wise counsel for unionist parties, particularly those Westminster king-makers the DUP, over why they should support the UK staying within some kind of single market with the Europeans.
In a question-and-answer session with the media, the Taoiseach was asked if he supported demands for "special status" post-Brexit for Northern Ireland.
His reply was a direct appeal to unionists to see sense on how to deal with the post-Brexit world: "What I would rather see, what I think would be the best outcome, is a very close relationship between the United Kingdom and the EU. We would only need a bespoke solution for Northern Ireland if Britain leaves the Single Market.
"If the entire United Kingdom stayed in, then you don't need 'special status' for Northern Ireland. I hope the unionist parties, for example, who would be keen to protect and preserve the Union would see that it's much easier to do that if the UK stays within the Customs Union and the Single Market, because that would take away the need for any special arrangement, or bespoke solution, for Northern Ireland."
That advice was under-reported, but generous in its tone and content and indicated that Varadkar was sincere in his vow to build bridges rather than sow division.
Another interesting aspect of Varadkar's answers to questions from the floor inside the Canada Room was his realism over Brexit.
The Taoiseach said that he was a "realist" about Brexit happening and was "not operating" on the basis that it was not going to come about, or that there would be a second EU referendum in the UK anytime soon. He was also absolutely correct in his assertion that the militarised frontier stretching for more than 300 miles during the Troubles was a monument to failure.
Looking back on those darker days, Varadkar reflected: "The border itself was a very different place, a place of bloodshed and violence, of checkpoints; a barrier to trade, prosperity and peace. A brutal physical manifestation of historic divisions and political failure."
Spot-on, of course, and worth pointing out that the border only became so overtly militarised from the 1970s onwards, in part, because of an armed campaign that was started to wipe it out and yet ended up only exacerbating the geo-political and social divisions on this island.
Varadkar's idea of a new customs union between the UK and the EU was attacked by pro-Union commentators, including Dr Graham Gudgin. The former economic adviser to David Trimble too easily dismissed this practical alternative advanced by the Taoiseach.
In a paper for the Right-wing Tory, pro-Brexit Policy Exchange, Dr Gudgin wrote: "His latest call in Belfast for the UK to negotiate a bespoke customs unions deal with the EU would require a special dispensation from the EU to allow the UK to agree new trade deals with third countries.
"This would be a departure from EU practice and is unlikely to be agreed."
Yet who says it is unlikely to be agreed? The Taoiseach is one of the premiers attending the watershed EU summit in October, under which the post-Brexit arrangements will be hammered out.
Why, if both he and Theresa May came to an agreement on his proposal, would the Europeans not grant such a dispensation if it was not only in the UK's, but also Ireland's interest?
Regarding the latter country, after all, doesn't the EU owe Ireland in spades for the way the Republic bent to Brussels' and Frankfurt's will during the global financial crash and imposed austerity policies that hammered the living standards of hundreds of thousands south of the border? Isn't it time for a bit of payback?
The EU may not want to reward the British for petulantly storming out of the European club, but it should listen to Leo Varadkar and his idea of a bespoke new customs union.
If the Taoiseach were to succeed in persuading the rest of the EU that such an arrangement was in Ireland's interests, too, then the Continental politicians should pay back the Irish people, north and south, with some good faith.
And if Varadkar achieved this goal, then everyone in Northern Ireland - unionist, nationalist and neither - should praise him for that, at least.